Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

Some Deep Thoughts on “War Dogs”

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

(originally published on Aug 31 2016 on

“People pay money to see others believe in themselves,” the rock musician Kim Gordon has said. More accurate to unpack the thought into two related ideas: first, that people pay money to see others engaged in the struggle to believe in themselves. (Whether it’s a rock star or an athlete, the possibility of failure is part of what draws us in.) And second, that people pay money to see others enjoying themselves—probably because the secret of how to do that becomes elusive after childhood.

This is part of Donald Trump’s popularity. He loves what he does, which is being in the public gaze. Even if that shouldn’t be the president’s main job description, and even from the perspective of a Trump hater, compared with Trump’s enjoyment of the spotlight, all of his competitors for the Republican nomination paled. People simply enjoy seeing him enjoy himself.

War Dogs shows work as fun, and as such, it’s much more subversive than director Todd Phillips’ earlier comedies, like Starsky & Hutch and the Hangover trilogy (none of which I’ve seen). War Dogs is about two 20-something losers who dream big, and what’s riveting is their struggle to believe in themselves, and their pleasure in what they do. (The book on which the movie was based actually features three, not two, main characters.) It’s a feel-good movie for defiant people and outsiders. Yes, it’s about selling weapons, but more about the selling than the weapons, and more still about work in general—a topic perennially underserved by novelists, but given more of its due by TV and movies, as New York Times film critic A.O. Scott recently noted. And as many people know, even the most mundane, unglamorous businesses can be absolutely gripping and full of drama, when they’re yours and there’s a chance to hit big. Think 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross (based on the David Mamet play) or David Russell’s fine 2015 movie Joy, about a woman whose mission in life was to invent a better mop. Or, for that matter, The Social Network.

Silicon Valley is all about what you do for fun becoming what makes you a fortune; that’s why it’s subversive—mainstream American culture still separates fun and fortune, weekday and weekend. I happened to see War Dogs for the first time on a Friday at 8 p.m., and on the way to the theater I was thinking how much I hate the phrase “have a good weekend!”—a phrase I associate with people doing work they don’t like, living for the Saturday-Sunday respite, and thinking everyone else lives like that too. Whereas I believe the goal in life is to find something you want to do seven days a week, whether it’s trade stocks or write poetry or raise kids or grow organic vegetables. Or be an arms dealer. Something that pleases and drives you so much that you don’t need or want time off.

And Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) the literally oversize protagonist of War Dogs, spends seven days a week selling weapons because it’s what he was born to do; his borderline sociopathy makes him a great salesman and he loves the details of the arms trade, the opportunity for hustling, and the guns themselves. He’s also scabrously un-PC in a way that also calls Trump to mind; he tells a translator to “say that in gibberish” and shoves past the crowd at Amman’s airport saying he’s American, he has to go first. His handsome but bland Jewish grade-school buddy, David Packouz (Miles Teller), with fewer obvious business skills and no love of guns, comes along for the ride. It beats his other job, giving massages (we see him with an older male client who “accidentally” drops his ass-covering towel to the floor).

As we’ll learn, Efraim is a shadow of a human being, without the ability to connect to others through friendship, love, or family. Yet he’s also charismatic because he is someone who loves how he spends his time. We’re supposed to identify with David, an attractive nebbish in a pink polo shirt carting a massage table around, but we’re mesmerized by Efraim, loud, crude and one-dimensional though he is.

Efraim and David spend almost all their waking hours in an office that’s basically a desk and a Scarface poster, staring at a U.S. government defense-procurement website and trying to figure out a way for their tiny firm, AEY Inc., to fulfill the contracts too small for established businesses to want to bid on. The movie makes it look like enormous fun. Because their business day begins again at midnight Miami time, morning in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the boundaries of work and play are diffuse. Because of this, and because these guys are in their 20s, there’s a lot of weed smoked and, eventually, coke snorted. It’s not so different from The Social Network, except that Mark Zuckerberg was creating something, and Efraim is just a middleman between arms buyers and sellers.

But the biggest difference between these guys and Silicon Valley is in style. The dudes are Jewish, just like Zuckerberg, but they’re from an insular, probably lower-middle-class Jewish background, while Zuckerberg went to Exeter and spent a couple of years at Harvard. (It seems Diveroli and Packouz are Sephardic.) They could just as well be Italian- or Irish-Americans—anyone who grew up in a tight-knit ethnic enclave, who got seed capital from a guy with a chain of dry cleaners (in real life, apparently, the financier was a Mormon in Utah) not a venture capitalist. Efraim has more in common with Melanie Griffith’s working-class striver from 1988’s Working Girl than with the privileged wonks of The Social Network; he was kicked out of high school after ninth grade and was just 18 when he started AEY. (The movie has them the same age, early 20, but David is really four years older.)

Of course, Efraim isn’t meant to be a role model. He’s open about his use of prostitutes; in fact, he’s unable to imagine any other kind of relationship with a woman. When he sees a girl he likes in a nightclub, he offers her $1,000 to blow him in his car, saying, “Why don’t we pretend we’ve had the three dates.” (Her boyfriend saunters by and decks him.) There are signs early on that Efraim’s also unable to be the “best friend” to David that he claims.

The two men get a huge, historic ammunition contract—but they make a sloppy mistake, and their comeuppance is only a matter of time. And as the business expands, Efraim spends more time doing cocaine and becomes suspicious and mean. We sense his unraveling in a scene of a trainee orientation. At the end of his spiel, Efraim asks if the trainees have any questions. “What does AEY stand for?” one guy asks. Efraim says, “It doesn’t stand for anything. Like IBM. Does IBM stand for anything?” The trainee says, “Well, actually it does. It stands for International Business Machines.” And Efraim shouts at him, “Get the fuck out of my office!” Then, “Anyone else have a question?” Silence. That bullying moment is, in fact, pure Trump. And you know then that Efraim is killing his newborn company.

Efraim and David get to the point where their work has an effect on the fate of nations. But Efraim is brought down because he becomes a pig. You could say it’s one of the things people do when they become addicted to coke, but you could also say people who want to punish themselves in certain ways use coke to do that. There’s a sadness deep in Efraim, beneath the hustle and the manic joy. The second time I saw the movie, I realized that part of Jonah Hill’s terrific performance is giving Efraim a peculiar laugh that sounds like sobbing. His bravado is a defense against depression.

How about David? There’s the obligatory scene where Packouz comes to his estranged baby mama, Iz, repentant, saying he’ll go back to doing massages, and she says she was always OK with that. Iz (a thankless role played by Ana de Armas) is from a modest Hispanic immigrant background. At the end of the movie, David’s back to schlepping that massage table around. Is Todd Phillips telling us that this is all life has to offer him?

A surprise ending suggests “no.” Because, of course, Todd Phillips’ heart isn’t with the normal, mediocre life. How could it be? What kind of wildly successful comedy director lives that way? War Dogs doesn’t believe that it’s equally good to decide the fate of nations or to give massages, and why shouldn’t we agree? Why do the same old shit for 40 years and then go nameless to your grave?

War Dogs doesn’t offer any easy answers; the potential happy ending for David comes with moral ambiguity. Everything costs something. But the movie forces us to ask: Why not try for the big time, whatever that means to you?


Do We Really Want to be Members of a Tribe?

Thursday, July 7th, 2016


Sebastian Junger’s fascinatingly wrong-headed ‘Tribe: on Homecoming and Belonging’

By Ann Marlowe
July 7, 2016 • 12:00 AM

“The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so unappealing.”

This statement early in Sebastian Junger’s new paean to tribal togetherness is, on the face of it, rubbish. Western society’s lack of appeal must be news to the millions of people who try, often at risk of their lives, to enter the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and the European Union each year as migrants or immigrants, apparently having decided that all that tribal connectivity in Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria (to name the countries that were the top sources of migrants to the E.U. in 2015) was something they could live without. Such rashness alerts us that Tribe is one of those eccentric screeds where everything looks like a nail because the author has a hammer. (But then, 2016 is a year in which this seems to be a feature of political thinking.)

Junger argues that the loss of the tribal environment in which human beings evolved helps to explain the 2008 financial crisis, mass shootings, and insurance fraud. He even argues against the American and Northern European practice of making children sleep by themselves in their own rooms—after all, our primitive ancestors didn’t do that, so it must cause problems. And yet Junger never defines what he means by “tribe.” The closest he comes is near the end of the book: “Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community.” But Americans already have one of the world’s highest levels of community engagement in terms of volunteerism, charitable giving, and attendance at religious worship.

Junger wants something more intense than normal life. Natural disasters, he argues, “Turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.” He’s in love with the immediately post-Sept. 11 upsurge of group cohesion, and some of this was a good thing. He points out that there were no mass shootings for a year after Sept. 11 and that “rates of violent crime, suicide and psychiatric disturbance dropped immediately. … New York’s suicide rate dropped by around 20 percent in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped by 40 percent.” But there was also a circling of the wagons, a suspicion of the foreign and the Muslim, a lot of flag waving by people careful to stay far from danger.

Is American society circa 2001-2 really something we want to revisit? Did we fight smart wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result? Was abridging our freedoms at home really the best way to enlarge the cause of freedom in the world? Is the rhetoric of “homeland” and “belonging” to a larger entity and “solidarity” helpful going forward?

Junger’s book is sorely lacking in analysis, counter-examples, subtlety, and organization. His prose has the rounded homogeneity of best-selling nonfiction. Yet the itch Junger is scratching is widespread in advanced societies, and the regressiveness of his argument is very of the moment, and he knows something about what he speaks: A seasoned war correspondent, he is the author of War, about an extended embed at a remote combat outpost in Afghanistan, and the companion film Restrepo. And as a national level distance runner at Wesleyan, he also spent a summer training with Navajo runners.

Yet Junger’s tribalism is vague. He mainly refers to Native American tribes, though he does mention a few African tribes. As anthropologists have been at pains to establish, tribes come in all sorts of flavors, and some are very nasty. It matters, because the crux of Junger’s argument is that human beings used to live happily in a certain way for hundreds of thousands of years in small tribes, and we no longer do, and our genetics change much more slowly than our living conditions, so we are profoundly maladjusted to the way we live now. This in turn leads to greedy bankers who disrespect the tribe by taking more than their share and PTSD for returning warriors, because war used to involve the whole tribe, not just a small segment of society. It’s hard not to see Junger’s model for how human beings used to live as yet another primitivism fantasy, an imaginary paradise loosely gleaned from American Indian life. It’s nostalgie de la boue—a term coined in 1855, just as the lower layers of European society were finally starting to escape the mud.

Moreover, the term tribal today is often used to describe social organization in some spectacularly unsuccessful places, like Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, and (with less validity) Libya. In some places in these countries belonging to a tribe is more or less important. But these societies, unlike American Indian life as Junger characterizes it, suffer from severe gender inequality, endemic corruption, conflict, and often from extremes of wealth and poverty.

But let’s give Junger the benefit of the doubt, say that human beings evolved under something like the conditions of the nicer American Indian tribes, and see what he has to say.


“Indians almost never ran away to join white society,” Junger notes. But so many Americans who do not claim Indian identity have Indian great-great-great grandmothers or -fathers that plenty of Indians must have entered white society. From my anecdotal knowledge, most of the captives lived on the frontiers and were not part of the ruling elites. They had pushed out to the places where the forest met the fields for cheaper land or more privacy; they were not abducted from Boston or Richmond. My hunch is that the captives who chose to stay were predominantly lower income, lower status, less educated: They were making a rational choice in the context of their position in white society. As Junger points out, “Indian society was essentially classless and egalitarian,” and a lower-status white person might do better relatively there.

As to the appeal of Native American life to non-Native Americans, it may well have been relaxed and companionable and egalitarian, but it did not offer much scope to the intellectual or cultural interests of cultivated Europeans (or for that matter Chinese or Japanese) at the time. How appealing would it be to spend the rest of your life in a society of 100 to 1,000 ethnically homogeneous people, without access to writing, science, philosophy, more than one type of cooking, chess, more than one type of music, more than one type of dance, more than one type of fashion, painting, or a variety of sports? Even in the 18th century, it meant no horse-drawn carriages, no roads, no Homer, no Shakespeare, no flower gardens, no piano, no silk, no architecture, no metal tools, no fine china, no furniture, no number theory.
‘Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community.’

Junger is also curiously silent about the moral and spiritual life of the Indian tribes. He might have noted that at the time of the first settlers, Protestantism was also becoming the dominant religion of northern and Western Europe. Protestantism demanded individual moral judgment and constant self-scrutiny (rather like Judaism). The notion of a career as providing meaning in life was just beginning to grow and with it the idea that one was responsible for one’s success or failure in worldly terms, and that it all had something to do with goodness. All of this is hard stuff; that’s why many people in the West, and even more in the Rest, still don’t like it.

It’s easier to live in a shame culture, not a guilt culture, and that’s what Native America was. The Indians may have lived blamelessly, even virtuously, but without forming independent moral judgments, figuring out one’s identity as an autonomous individual, even opposing the group if one thought they were wrong. When people are caught up in a larger-than-life drama, good or bad, whether a natural disaster or an event like Sept. 11, they find themselves back in a shame culture, where self-interrogation is less important than meeting group expectations. And for some people, this has good effects.

Junger’s two favorite idylls, military life and Native American life, meet along an existential dimension: In both of them, you don’t need to engage in a daily struggle to achieve your purpose in life. Most of us in advanced, urbanized cultures have to confront disturbing existential questions every day. What have I accomplished today? What’s my plan? Am I living rightly? Is everything I’m doing today furthering that plan?

This sort of interrogation is a part of Jewish culture even among non-religious Jews and surely explains the celebrated neuroticism and melancholy of Jews. Which brings me to another issue: I can’t see the word “tribe” without thinking of the phrase, “member of the Tribe.” Maybe it’s the same for Junger, who is half-Jewish on his father’s side. I’ve never liked this phrase, which implies that Jews are born, not made, and which mistakes what is great about Judaism. Our ancestors were not very like the American Indians Junger extols: They invented monotheism and wrote the Bible and started abstract thinking and one of the great schools of legal reasoning thousands of years ago. All of this proved to be essential to modern life. All of it was accessible to people who were not born Jews.


In tribal life, as in the American military, many of the existential questions are answered for you once you make the big choice to sign up. That’s why there are people who flounder in civilian life but succeed brilliantly in the military. That’s also why some 18th-century captives presumably made great Indians, but would have been lost in Providence or Philadelphia.

So, yes; living in the non-tribal world is harder and often sadder. Junger says: “The more assimilated a person is into American society, the more likely they are to develop depression during the course of their lifetime, regardless of what ethnicity they are.” Of course! If you’re a Chinese immigrant waiter working 18 hours a day and sharing a two-bedroom with 15 other men, you don’t have the luxury of depression. But a Chinese-American investment banker has time to agonize over whether he is really actualizing himself, really married to the right person, really living in the right city. “According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries.” Well, yes. If I’m sure of my food for the day, I start thinking about existential issues, and often this leads to anxiety or feelings of inadequacy.

In Tribe, Junger does not mention any of this; war and tribal life are all about camaraderie, never about how they solve the existential questions. Perhaps because of the simplistic view he takes of war, Junger also errs in his argument in Tribe that PTSD is a disease of re-entry into a fragmented society. This is unfair in a couple of ways to the military and rather unfortunate given recent medical research on the physical basis of at least some PTSD. Junger, whose website features a photograph of the author in body armor on an embed, is a great admirer of the American military, but just as he ignores the aspects of military life that are easier than civilian life, he also ignores the burdens of military discipline and of command.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Junger’s fallen into a common trap among military reporters: thinking you’re having the full experience when you’re just an observer. Sentences like, “At one point I and the men I was with made our way to a front-line position” and “We lost one of our packhorses in the barrage” are a clue that Junger misunderstands his role. Reporters have few of the moral burdens of the combatants. No journalist fires at the car that doesn’t slow down for the checkpoint and then finds out that it contains the dead bodies of a not very bright father and his perfectly innocent Iraqi family of eight. No journalist sends a SEAL team on a mission knowing some of them will not come back—or sends four young low-ranking enlisted on a routine re-supply convoy that ends in their crippling by IED explosion. All this must be processed on re-entry.

Then there is the impact of IEDs. It’s not uncommon for American soldiers with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan to have experienced several IED blasts. This is very different from a World War II soldier’s experience. Junger notes that “roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability. Since only 10 percent of our armed forces experience actual combat, the majority of vets claiming to suffer from PTSD seem to have been affected by something other than direct exposure to danger.” He’s right to notice that there is a mismatch—and some fraud and freeloading—here. But that 10 percent figure is as sketchy as it is hard to verify, and it’s irrelevant in the new wars, where combat is not what’s most likely to kill you. Supply specialists, drivers, cultural experts, or engineers who had the bad luck to be in the wrong convoy can die or receive disabling injuries in an instant.

Junger’s view of PTSD as a mainly or wholly psychological ailment is also turning out to be incorrect. Medical studies are emerging now which prove what seems common sense: The human brain is injured by being multiply concussed. Just in the last months, it’s emerged that there are distinctive changes in the brain from concussions that can affect reasoning, mood, and behavior. Here is the key medical article and here is the New York Times Magazine piece about it.

More than 340,000 veterans have been diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (admittedly most not from IEDs), which can take months or years to manifest. Part of the reason for the high numbers of vets applying for disability is that people are surviving what would have been lethal wounds in earlier wars. Junger views it as a paradox that disability claims rise as mortality falls, but it makes perfect sense: We have a lot more injured vets coming back who would have died in WWII from the same injuries. So, if PTSD is often a response to surviving IED explosions that jar the brain, it doesn’t make much difference what kind of integration into society the returning vet has.

But again like that man who happens to have a hammer, Junger is intent on seeing all of life through the lens of the military and tribalism. Something Junger says about the current debased political discourse is applicable here: “Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn’t, potentially, one huge combat outpost are deluding themselves.” Sympathetic though I am with Junger’s message, America should not be looked at as a combat outpost—either by foreigners, or worse, by Americans.

We have never been Sparta; the founders were clear that we were not to be a garrison state with a standing army but a nation devoted to “the pursuit of happiness” in whatever way individuals wished. And it’s precisely because figuring out one’s desires is tough that life in the contemporary world is tough. Jews learned that, perhaps, before most other people. But regression to the values of tribalism is no answer.

TOEFL, a Desperately Dull & Profoundly Unfair Exam

Monday, March 14th, 2016

(originally published on March 14 2016 in;

TOEFL, a Desperately Dull and Profoundly Unfair Exam, Abuses the English Language

I tried to prep a pair of Afghan teens for American boarding school, but instead of teaching them the language they need, I spent all my time explaining cultural references and unfamiliar contexts

By Ann Marlowe

United States
TOEFL, a Desperately Dull and Profoundly Unfair Exam, Abuses the English Language

I tried to prep a pair of Afghan teens for American boarding school, but instead of teaching them the language they need, I spent all my time explaining cultural references and unfamiliar contexts

By Ann Marlowe
March 13, 2016 • 10:00 PM

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“Who is Alicia Keys?” Amina’s voice over the Viber connection to Afghanistan was faint but her puzzlement was clear. I didn’t think I was going to have to give lessons on American pop culture when I set out to tutor Amina, 16, and her brother Ahmad, 17, for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Truth was, I didn’t know much about Alicia Keys either, and that hadn’t interfered with my life so far.

I’d met Amina and Ahmad in their home town of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan in 2002, when they were 3 and 4 years old. We took to each other from the start. And I kept visiting their family—and staying in their big family compound—at least once a year up until 2011. For most of that time, Afghanistan in general and Mazar in particular seemed to be on an upward path.

Amina and Ahmad both go to the local Afghan-Turk High School—run by the Turkish Gulenist movement and rather peculiar but the best option among the not very impressive selection of local private schools. Everything was going well for Amina and Ahmad until this year, when the Afghan government began what looks like a meltdown. This summer, the girls’ Afghan-Turk school received Taliban death threats, and the Taliban’s success in capturing Kunduz briefly this fall didn’t bode well for Mazar, just 100 miles away. So, this fall Amina and Ahmad’s parents asked me to help them apply to boarding school in the United States.

To apply to American boarding school or college, foreign students must take an English language test, usually instead of the PSAT or SAT. For all the boarding schools we were interested in (and for the vast majority of colleges) the TOEFL is required. While there are TOEFL junior and primary tests for ages 11+ and 8+ respectively, the TOEFL iBT, or Internet-based test, which Amina and Ahmad will take, is suggested for “16+”. They will be competing with students five or 10 years older—they are lucky enough to attend a local TOEFL prep course, and the other students are at the local university. The TOEFL IBT takes four and a half hours and incorporates reading, listening, speaking, and writing sections.

I’d assumed Amina and Ahmad would have a tough time with the TOEFL, as they have little experience with English. Uzbek, a Turkic language, is their home language. Dari—a dialect of Farsi and, along with Pashtu, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan—is what they speak outside the house. Turkish is the second language of their high school. They also study Pashtu in school, as it’s obligatory for Afghan students to study both Dari and Pashtu. But not English. So, I was prepared for an uphill battle to improve Amina and Ahmad’s English. And I adjusted to the fact that the Internet is slow in Mazar, and it takes a long time to download files or refresh a screen.

What I didn’t expect was the esoteric cultural content embedded in the test. In three months of working an hour a day with Ahmad and Amina, seven days a week, I’ve come to see the TOEFL as almost always dull and often profoundly unfair to students from the more remote parts of the developing world.


Alicia Keys came up in a practice reading selection on the Empire State Building’s switch to LED lights—an event which wasn’t exactly of earth-shattering importance for me or anyone else I know in New York. “What does Alicia Keys suggest the Empire State building is a symbol of?” the question asked. The explanation involved my explaining to the Afghan siblings why New York is called “The Empire State.” Another question about the lighting of the Empire State Building referred to the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. This also puzzled the young Afghans, as this isn’t a car available in Afghanistan.

It also took a lot of work—and I mean, a lot—to explain the worldview embodied in the test. Two of the 10 questions in the Empire State Building selection focused on the environmental effects of the building’s shift to LED lights, using the phrases “to become more green” and “environmentally conscious,” which make no intuitive sense to non-English speakers from the developing world. For those who live in a largely pre-industrial society like Amina and Ahmad, getting electricity is a much more familiar concern than saving it. (Viber makes our sessions possible even when the city power is down.)

The TOEFL, I came to see, is less a test of proficiency in the English language than it is a test of students’ familiarity with fashionable American media and pop culture references and with current topics like global warming and the greenhouse effect. For instance, the Empire State Building passage includes this:

The LED system has “16.7 million color possibilities, in digital combinations of ripples, sparkles, sweeps and strobes,” says Phil O’Donnell, of Burlington, Mass.-based Philips Color Kinetics that’s responsible for the system and worked with a resident lighting designer. It’s the sum of all possibilities – a huge palette.

While it is possible to imagine the person for whom this kind of breathless virtue-signaling might be a source of near-physical pleasure, it is hard to argue that properly parsing word-combinations like “ripples, sparkles, sweeps and strobes” is crucial for academic success in America. While I was trying to teach Ahmad and Amina grammar, vocabulary, and test smarts—read the first paragraph and the last, then look at the questions to see how many you can answer and what you need to attend to as you read the rest—what I couldn’t teach were dozens of references to things, places, and experiences that Afghans have no acquaintance with.

An internationally famous ballerina, Maria Tallchief, demonstrated that the quality of ballet in North America could equal those of the ballet in Europe.

If you don’t know whether a ballerina is a scientist or a dancer, or that the words “ballerina” and “ballet” are related, how are you supposed to answer the question?

The Educational Testing Service (ETS), the behemoth that runs the TOEFL, insists that cultural context has little to do with the accuracy of the test. ETS’ Manager of Public Relations, Allyson Norton, emailed answers to my questions about cultural context. She responded,

One of the key principles of passage selection is that the passage needs to stand alone, meaning no prior knowledge is needed to understand the passage. … Further, background knowledge of content within test passages does not significantly impact scores.

But is it realistic to think that students who have no background knowledge on any question, like Ahmad and Amina, generally do as well as, say, test takers from a European country?

Norton sent me an internal study that showed that:

reading passages were neither advantageous nor disadvantageous to those who had physical science backgrounds or were familiar with a certain culture, and this holds for both the lower and higher proficiency groups.

The paper that Norton sent me referred to two types of mental processing used in reading comprehension, top down and bottom up. Both are used in most reading. Those who rely too heavily on top down, context-based understanding may make errors. But Norton also sent me a document that proves my main point: a country-by-country breakdown of average scores on the TOEFL’s four parts. There is a clear correlation between countries that are poor, isolated, and less linked to the world economy and countries with low average TOEFL scores. No surprise, Afghanistan ranks near the bottom with an average score of 69 out of a possible 120.

The rankings are fascinating. It’s no surprise that Equatorial Guinea stands dead last at 59, but Saudi Arabia is also at 59. Meanwhile Israel is 93, just two points below English-speaking New Zealand, and the highest scores belong to Austria and English-speaking Northern Ireland tied at 100. So, what are these tests actually measuring?

As the variation in country scores suggests, the common-sense hypothesis that success on the TOEFL is correlated with coming from a richer, more developed, more globalized country is true. The TOEFL tests cultural knowing-ness as much as it tests English skills. Of course, there’s a correlation there, too: If your English is really good, chances are you spend time on English language websites, listen to English language songs, watch English language movies, and so on.

The research also shows that test takers who are applying to high school have the highest average scores, higher than applicants to graduate or professional schools. My hypothesis is that apart from anomalies like Ahmad and Amina, most foreign teens who apply to boarding school in the United States are from rich, sophisticated families who have sent their children to excellent schools where they are immersed in American culture.

There’s also another issue, which has nothing to do with cultural literacy. Many of the TOEFL reading selections are simply deadly dull. Some are poorly written, vague, and confusing; others are clear but concern subject matter like geology that would get very few page views if posted on an online news site. I can understand that graduate-student test takers ought to be ready to tackle tedious material—adults often have to read boring articles for work. But why is this necessary for teenagers applying to high school? Why not pick excerpts from famous speeches by Churchill or Lincoln? How about some easy English poetry? When I asked Amina and Ahmad to read some poems by Robert Frost, they were much more interested than in anything the TOEFL practice tests have put before them.

Ironically, though there is not much to say in favor of the Afghan school system, public or private—they don’t teach evolution, for instance; and brutal physical punishment, though officially prohibited, is not uncommon—Afghan students know well the glories of Persian literature. They study the great Persian (and Pashtu) poets. Ahmad and Amina have memorized poetry in Farsi and Turkish (the most celebrated Afghan poet, Rumi, also wrote in Turkish). It’s sad that nothing they have encountered in prepping for the TOEFL has given them a hint that English is a powerful, economical, and supple language that has produced libraries full of magnificent novels, essays, and poetry.